Fisherman's return stirs mixed emotions in Korean village

Tue Nov 19, 2013 4:14pm EST
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By Ju-min Park

NONGSO, South Korea (Reuters) - The recent return of a South Korean fisherman abducted by North Korea more than 40 years ago has reopened wounds in a small island village that lost 17 other men in a Cold War conflict that still simmers today.

Jeon Wook-pyo, who reappeared in South Korea in September after escaping from the North through China, has since paid a brief visit to Nongso - a remote outpost of around 170 people on the southern island of Geoje, about five hours drive from Seoul - but he won't be settling back there.

"It wasn't a nice feeling that he reminded me of my husband. There was nothing to feel good about," said 82-year-old Ok Chul-soon, whose husband skippered one of two fishing boats that were seized with all hands, including Jeon, by North Korean patrol boats near disputed waters in December 1972.

She acknowledged Jeon's return was welcome, but said she was too upset to stay throughout his visit, adding they would meet privately at some time so she could ask for news of her husband.

Seoul says 516 South Koreans, mostly fishermen, remain in the North after a spate of abductions following the 1950-53 Korean War - the two sides are technically still at war as no peace treaty was ever signed.

Critics say the South Korean government has abandoned those held in the North and has stigmatized their families in the South, painting them as suspected subversives with ties to North Korean spies.

"The South Korean government has no interest in abductees," said Choi Wook-il, another fishermen who was snatched by the North in 1974, but who escaped in 2007. "While it sent those 63 North Koreans back, they could have traded them with South Koreans in the North," he told Reuters, referring to the return to Pyongyang, to a hero's welcome, of more than five dozen North Korean prisoners during a thaw between the two Koreas in 2000.

Choi said the fishermen lived under heavy security and were subject to indoctrination with North Korea's Juche ideology. "Security agents came to my house and slept there. They followed me to the mountains, fields and market," said Choi, who was forced to work on a collective farm for 30 years, and shared a room with Jeon for three months in the late 1980s.   Continued...

Kim Jeom-sun, 82, whose husband was abducted in 1972 by North Koreans, points at her husband in a picture taken with other abductees in 1974 at Myohyang mountain in North Korea, at her house in Busan, about 420 km (261 miles) southeast of Seoul October 28, 2013. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji